Fan Vidding: A Labor Of Love (Part Two)

In many ways, the emergence of these videos represents the culmination of a several year long process through which some in the fan vidding world have decided to come out out of their bedrooms and hotel suites and share what they are producing with the world. I wrote about part of this story in a forthcoming essay for Joshua Green and Jean Burgess's book on Youtube:

When a recent news story traced fan videos back to "the dawn of YouTube," many female fans expressed outrage. For more than two decades, a community, composed mostly of women, had been producing such videos, using two vcrs and patch cords, struggling with roll back and rainbow lines, when it seemed an act of sysiphian patience. Francesca Coppa (2007) traces the history of this form back to 1975 when a woman named Kandy Fong first put together slide show presentations set to popular songs for Star Trek conventions. Over the years, these fan vidders developed more sophisticated techniques as they embraced and mastered digital editing tools, constructed their own distribution channels, and defined and refined multiple aesthetic traditions.

Yet, even as other "remix" communities found a supportive home on YouTube, the community struggled with how public they wanted to make their practices. When I wrote Textual Poachers in 1992, the vidders were reluctant to talk and most asked not to be named. Fans were nervous that their works were vulnerable to prosecution for copyright violation from film studios, networks, and recording studios alike. They were also anxious that their videos would not be understood outside of the interpretive context fandom provided. For example, when a Kirk/Spock vid, set to Nine Inch Nails's "Closer," leaked onto Youtube without its creator's permission, its queer reading of the Star Trek characters as lovers was widely read as comic, even though this particular work was seen as disturbing within the slash fan community because of its vivid depiction of sexual violence.

Some vidders circulated their works through less visible channels, such as IMeem, often friend-locked so that they could only be accessed within their own close-knit community. Debates broke out on LiveJournal and at fan conventions as veteran vidders were torn between a fear of being written out of the history of mashup culture and an anxiety about what would happen if the Powers That Be (producers and networks) learned what they were doing. In Fall 2007, New York magazine (Hill) ran a profile of Luminosity, a leader in the viding movement, while fan vids were showcased, alongside the work of other subcultural communities, at a DIY Media conference hosted by University of Southern California.

As Laura Shapiro (2006), a contributor to the USC event, explained in a Live Journal post:

"However legitimate a vidder's fears may be, the fact is that the vids are already out there. The minute we put our vids online, we expose ourselves to the world...We can't stop people from sharing our vids without our consent or even our knowledge. We can't control the distribution of our own work in a viral medium....We also can't control other people's attitudes. New vidders arrive on the scene every day, without any historical context or legal fears, and plunk their vids onto YouTube without a second thought. They post publicly and promote themselves enthusiastically, and why not? That's what everybody does on the Internet, from the AMV creators to machinima-makers to Brokeback Mountain parodists to political remixers."

Shapiro's post to the Live Journal viding community suggests the complex creative, personal, institutional, ideological, and legal motivations which might draw such a historically sheltered subculture towards greater public outreach:

  • recognition of our history and traditions, academically and socially (new vidders learn, older vidders are venerated).
  • the opportunity to provide context and normalize our fannish work the way traditionally male fannish work is becoming normalized
  • the potential for vidders to connect fannish work with professional work, working professionally in the entertainment industry if they want to
  • more widespread appreciation and recognition of great vids and great vidders
  • the potential to generate widespread support for us in any legal battles we may encounter (joining forces with other DIY video communities, representation of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, creation of legal defense funds, etc.)
  • the potential for cross-pollination or even unification of disparate vidding communities and the chance to connect isolated vidders with those communities
  • the chance to influence Big Media to create more of the kinds of TV shows and movies we value
  • the potential to influence the wider viewing world with themes and portrayals of sexual and gender equality, homosexuality, etc."

Shapiro's comments help to explain why the fan community has become increasingly public in promoting its agenda in recent years, including the emergence of the Organization for Transformative Works, which has taken on a range of projects, ranging from legal and public advocacy to the development of an online journal and participation in our efforts to promote New Media Literacies. These documentaries on vidding suggest one of the ways that fans can deploy new media platforms to help expand public awareness and understanding of the transformative potentials displaed in their remix practices.

Those of us at Project New Media Literacies were delighted to see what Coppa, Shapiro, and the others working on this project were able to accomplish. The filmmakers manage to represent a broad range of different source material, to showcase fans of different generations, to display a range of techniques, and to convey something of the spirit of the vidding community. It is great to be able to share a fan's eye view of this phenomenon without any of the exoticism that often surrounds dominant representations of fans. I love the way that the films move through many different voices rather than focusing on a small number of individuals. This is very consistent with our own interests in collaboration, collective intelligence, and community.

Teachers often complain that they lack aesthetic criteria for talking about what constitutes good or bad work in regards to new media production practices. In particular, as we've begun to integrate materials from participatory culture into the classroom, we find that teachers and students clash over the relative value of the examples selected and such clashes can often break down opportunities for discussion and learning. As Pierre Bourdieu notes, tastes are most often defended through the expression of distastes. We deflect criticism of our own tastes by launching into an attack on some one else's cultural preferences. Fans have long gotten bogged down in what I've described as the politics of cultural preferences. From without, fans are often isolated by a public which doesn't understand their tastes or how they choose to express them. From within, fans are often isolated from each other through clashes of tastes -- even among people who share a favorite book or television series, they may disagree over "ships" (that is, preferred relationships). For that reason, we were particularly eager to have a segment exploring how fans determine what constitutes a good or bad vid. Here, we get some understanding of the aesthetic judgments shaping vidding and in the process, we may learn to be better viewers and more informed critics of vids.

In the context of the NML Learning Library, these videos will become resources for classroom teachers, after school programs, and home schoolers. They will be explored through the framework provided by our new media literacies skills including in this case, appropriation, collective intelligence, and networking. When the learning library rolls out in the spring, we will include more than 30 challenges (clusters of resources and activities organized around the skills) and more than 80 videos produced either by our NML team or by outside collaborators like the Organization for Transformative Works or American University's Center for Social Media. These materials will provide raw materials for teachers and students alike to develop their own challenges and share them with the larger NML community.

Many of our videos center around fannish topics including vidding, cosplay, and animation. I'm hoping that fan communities may want to take on the responsibility to develop their own challenges which help introduce their innovative production practices to a larger public.

Thanks to Francesca Coppa, Laura Shapiro, and the others on their team for offering such a rich model for the value of this kind of collaboration between fandom and academia.